Many kitchens in the restaurant industry are
toxic, but few deserve the description quite so literally as Los Angeles jam destination
Sqirl. Over the weekend, back-of-house workers at Sqirl took to social media to
stories of their time in the kitchen, the most notorious involving the use
of a “mold bucket” to ready jams for commercial consumption. The moldy jam
grabbed all the headlines, but the real story was in the allegations from
kitchen employees that Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow had used their work without
proper credit or compensation and had created a hostile environment for Black
workers and people of color.
This aspect of the story received far less attention. Meanwhile, other stories in recent days detailing similar abuses in other critically lauded restaurants across the country have also passed largely unnoticed. Last week, Angela Dimayuga, former executive chef at Mission Chinese Food in New York City, posted a statement on Instagram detailing the abusive, misogynistic workplace fostered by chef-owner Danny Bowien during her six years at the restaurant. On Monday, Trigg Brown, chef and co-founder of Brooklyn hipster restaurant Win Son, told Eater that he was stepping back from day-to-day operations after several former employees of the restaurant, also on Instagram, claimed that Brown “ran a kitchen rife with verbal abuse and intimidation.”
Reading the testimonies of these brave employees on social media, it was impossible for me not to wonder: Why didn’t food journalists already know about these abuses? Or if they did know, why hadn’t they reported on them?
In May 2017 I was hired by Dimayuga as a line cook in the kitchen at Mission Chinese Food. I stayed for almost three years, eventually becoming the head chef of Mission Chinese’s Brooklyn location, where I remained until Covid-19 forced the restaurant to close in March. I have no reason to doubt Dimayuga when she claims that Bowien was a “verbally abusive, deeply manipulative,” and “tyrannical” boss. This should be a huge story, especially since Dimayuga has been credited as a principal creative force in the Mission Chinese Food franchise. Instead, the response from food media has been an uncomfortable silence.
It’s all the more curious since Bowien is, after all, an authentic food-world celebrity. He has published a cookbook, hosted a season of the documentary series Mind of a Chef, and collaborated with many figures outside the food world, such as designer Alexander Wang. Surely the allegation from a high-ranking former employee that he ran an abusive and misogynistic workplace should be of interest to food writers. The most recent story about Mission Chinese Food published in the mainstream food media was a piece a few weeks ago in which Eater gave Bowien free rein to issue a long, indulgent statement about the evolution of his thinking on workplace harassment (tl;dr it’s bad).
For years now, the New York food media has returned to Bowien again and again, seeking his perspective, offering him a platform, knowing that, whatever happens, at the very least it can expect good copy. Like many chefs, he is a creation of the media, including even general-interest magazines like this one. But now that serious allegations have surfaced about him, the response from the same journalists who’ve invested years in boosting his profile? Nothing.
In its consistent, uncritical celebration of chefs and owners later revealed to be bad bosses, and in its refusal to reckon with its own role in facilitating their rise to the top, the food media has failed us.
Consider the recent case of chef Abe Conlon, whose Chicago restaurant Fat Rice was garlanded with awards and critical acclaim, then forced to shut down after employees exposed Conlon on social media as a torrential asshole. Where was the reporting on the restaurant’s toxic kitchen culture when Fat Rice was being showered with accolades and praise? Mainstream food media perpetuates the dysfunction rampant in the restaurant industry by refusing to report on the “who” behind the “what.” Either the media glosses over its own role in creating kitchen monsters, or it busies itself with a studied silence, steadfastly refusing to address the sins of its imperiled darlings.
Take Momofuku founder David Chang. Chang is a longtime friend and collaborator of food writer Peter Meehan, who recently resigned from his post as food editor of the Los Angeles Times after several colleagues came forward to describe an abusive newsroom culture that flourished under Meehan’s watch, both at the Times and, earlier, at Lucky Peach, the now-defunct food magazine that Meehan co-founded in 2011 with Chang and Chris Ying. Meehan’s resignation from the Times was the biggest story in the food world for much of this summer. He and Chang are close: They have worked on cookbooks together, and in 2018 Meehan featured extensively in several episodes of the first season of Ugly Delicious, Chang’s popular Netflix series.
Chang obviously felt some pressure to say something about Meehan’s fall from grace. The result: a thin, say-nothing statement on his podcast, in which Chang shed some crocodile tears, affected a dash of emotional rawness, claimed to have fallen out with Meehan soon after the first edition of Lucky Peach came out in 2011 (how, then, is it possible they were so chummy on the 2018 season of Ugly Delicious?), then said he couldn’t comment further because of a binding NDA with Meehan. The food media’s response to this impossibly weak statement? Silence. The food writers one might have expected to criticize Chang or delve into the long-standing whispers of abuse in his own restaurants’ kitchens had nothing to say, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider that many of them have themselves benefited from Chang’s patronage, appearing on his podcast and in episodes of Ugly Delicious.
Celebrity chefs and food writers need each
other—to build their brands and “do numbers,” whether online (for the
writers) or at the point of sale (for restaurants). The food media is complicit
in the creation of kitchen tyrants, building their profiles, massaging their
egos, exploiting their personalities for clicks—and chefs, in turn, help
elevate the careers of food writers with access and exposure. In this sense the
food world represents the marriage of two uniquely flawed industries:
restaurants and the media. Cooks and food writers are all brutalized to some
degree by the imperatives of competition and profit. The economics of
restaurants are notoriously inhospitable, which means that chefs need to
aggressively market themselves in order to stay afloat, while ad-dependent food
media outlets, as well as more traditional newspapers and magazines, naturally
gravitate to whatever’s going to bring in clicks and readers.
What’s really at stake here is how the food media approaches the task of covering the food industry. There are, of course, important exceptions, but the restaurant media, not unlike technology media in the breathless days of the big new iPhone reveal, is for the most part an uncritical hype machine. It still views its function as handing out recommendations and instructing people where and what to eat. But a restaurant is more than just its food: It’s a workplace, a repository of labor practices, a kitchen with its own particular culture and approach to the management of people and creativity. When so much of food coverage is devoted to celebrating and cultifying chefs as eccentric, demanding “creatives,” unbeholden to the ordinary rules of the workplace, can we be surprised that this new moment, in which many chefs and restaurant owners are being revealed as the abusive, domineering bosses they really are, has left the food media flat-footed? A pivot to a more critical, adversarial approach to covering restaurants seems unlikely as long as the food media is built on the idea of the chef as a singular creative mind.
Despite the waves of revelations that have rocked the restaurant industry in recent years—starting with the #MeToo-fueled implosions of the careers of Mario Batali and Ken Friedman in 2017—the media’s reckoning with its own role in elevating and enabling these kitchen abusers has been scant to nonexistent. This seems grossly unfair. Does a restaurant serving good food deserve to be celebrated if employees are regularly harassed and demeaned, and the culture of the kitchen is built on manipulation and abuse? Why should it be up to individual employees to put their necks on the line and tell these stories of abuse, often at great risk to themselves and their future employment prospects, when there’s a whole segment of the media that’s nominally devoted to covering the food world?
Food journalists rarely, if ever, take the time to get behind the scenes and talk to the “little people” in restaurants—the line cooks, dishwashers, and servers—to understand what these workplaces are really like. They engage only with owners and operators, which means their reporting on restaurants is necessarily superficial, reflecting their own impressions and the restaurant’s party line. Some outlets have recognized their own role in hyping up places later revealed to be shitty places to work (there’s a single, terse paragraph in the Eater piece on Win Son to that effect: “Bon Appetit has heaped accolades on the restaurant, the New York Times loved it, and Eater has covered it extensively as one of the city’s most exciting restaurants”). But there’s little discussion of embracing a different model for reporting on restaurants, of engaging with the industry in a deeper, more expansive, more engaged way. The hype-to-backlash pipeline rolls on undisturbed.
Food media needs to start thinking about the restaurant industry in its entirety, rather than just the food and whatever hammily woke facade chefs and owners want to present to the world. We need fewer food writers and more food reporters—more journalists willing to approach the food beat with the determination and skepticism of a good political or crime reporter. This isn’t simply a question of covering abuse and manipulation in kitchens, or mistreatment of employees. It’s about questioning the whole concept of kitchen creativity—asking smart questions about originality, credit, and the act of culinary creation, which is far more collaborative than readers might understand. It’s about holding restaurants to their public commitments. Abuse, hypocrisy, appropriation, manipulation—all are still, sadly, rife throughout restaurants, and these stories are available for the taking. All it requires is a few enterprising reporters to go hunt them down.
I am not suggesting that we find “better” chefs to celebrate and cultify; the problem is not the chefs themselves so much as the media’s extravagant and unmerited praise of any cook who shows an ounce of creative talent. This is why recent attempts to “fix” the food industry—both in kitchens and newsrooms—by simply “finding a person of color” and turning them into the Chang or Conlon of tomorrow are so unsatisfying. These efforts replace one system of domination, megalomania, and abuse with a new system likely to replicate the same pathologies. An industry built on cults of personality is still bad, no matter the personalities.
Building a better food industry starts with recognizing the complicity that binds celebrity-hungry chefs and click-hungry writers. It means encouraging a style of journalism that peeks into kitchens rather than lounging in the dining room, waiting to be fed. It requires treating restaurants not simply as vehicles for the delivery of food but as social institutions—and moving from there to build a culture, in both kitchens and newsrooms, premised on thoughtfulness, care, consideration, and quiet pride in good cooking. It means blowing the whole thing up—the full catastrophe of celebrity chefs, rapacious ownership structures, appalling worker conditions, toxic kitchen cultures, and restaurants disengaged from their communities—and starting over again.